Deliberate Rest

A blog about getting more done by working less

Category: Business and work (page 1 of 22)

Our ideas about work and rest in the workplace

“Japanese companies are beginning to embrace… the idea of a four-day workweek”

The Japan Times has an article about “Japanese companies warming up — slowly — to four-day workweek:”

Once synonymous with long work hours, Japanese companies are beginning to embrace — or at least consider — the idea of a four-day workweek.

Although the concept is nothing new and the number of companies adopting the system fluctuates, it is increasing over the long term.

As of 2018, according to a labor ministry survey, 6.9 percent of privately held companies with 30 or more full-time employees had introduced the system in some form. A decade ago, the figure was 3.1 percent.

As I’ve noted earlier, Japan has some of the biggest companies in the world that are currently operating on a shortened workweek: Zozo adopted what it calls the “Rokujiro” 30-hour workweek in 2012. This article is more about companies adopting four 10-hour days, but still, it’s another straw in the wind.

The Wellcome Trust thinks about four-day weeks

The Guardian, which really owns the beat on the shorter workweeks trend, reports that the Wellcome Trust “is considering moving all of its 800 head office staff to a four-day week in a bid to boost productivity and improve work-life balance.”

A trial of the new working week at the £26bn London-based science research foundation could start as soon as this autumn, giving workers Fridays off to do whatever they want with no reduction in pay. Some parts of the organisation already operate a no-emails policy in the evenings or at weekends, but this would mark a more dramatic change….

The core of the organisation’s work is processing and assessing grant applications for scientific research across biology, medicine, population health, the humanities and social science. That is the kind of predictable process that might be well suited to a shorter week, it believes.

The Trust isn’t well-known in America, but it’s “the world’s second-biggest research donor after the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.”

It’ll be very interesting to see how this plays out. On the outside, grantmaking doesn’t look like the most strenuous of jobs, but from what I’ve seen from friends who work at American philanthropies, the people who work there are very dedicated, really want to make world-changing moves (when you’re at the Gates and Wellcome level, at least), and have to both think really deeply and go to a lot of meetings; and when the founder is still alive and involved, that can put a lot of pressure on people to deliver results. This combination of a need for serious insight, to develop a vision of what the world’s problems are going to be years from now and to work with people who are coming up with solutions that’ll address those, to build consensus within the organization for this program line and that specific project– it’s a nontrivial exercise.

Sick days and overwork vs shorter hours

The New York Times has a piece about “The Death of the Sick Day,” about how

the sick day is disappearing from the office vocabulary, even as we hit peak flu season. Once, a sick day was just that — a day away from work to focus on recovery…. But in recent years, it has become something murkier in definition and more reflective of our highly competitive, 24-7 work lives. The shifting definition and expanding mobility of the office — thanks to remote work and the rise of contractors in the gig economy — is also making the sick day somewhat passé, at least for some jobs.

The fact that many people feel that their jobs would be at risk if they took off a day to recover from an illness is a painful indicator of the state of modern work.

It also brought to mind something I’ve kept hearing when interviewing people whose companies run 4-day weeks: their sick days go way down. They argue that first of all, their people are healthier. They have more time to exercise and cook real food, which means their baseline levels of health and disease resistance go up. As a result, they’re just sick less often, and when they are, the three-day weekend gives them a greater chance of resting and keeping a mild illness from turning into something more serious.

You could also add that having a 4-day week means that they’re also more likely to be able to deal with other family members’ illness, without having to call in themselves.

And of course, we should contrast this situation to the health of people who chronically overwork and deal with stress in the office: they’re much more likely to get sick, to have chronic or stress-related illnesses, and to cost companies (or the national health service) in the long run.

Insecure overachievers

For some time, I’ve talked about why overwork has become the new normal, even for people who are fairly economically secure, or who have lots of control over their time.  Most of us, I think, have an intuitive grasp of what’s going one.

For one thing, many of us don’t work in fields that have “natural” starting and end-times, or clear external measures of productivity. At sunset we can’t look back on how many acres we’ve harvested; when the factory whistle sounds, we don’t have a bunch of widgets we’ve stamped out. Knowledge work and services can stretch out across our days and work their way into the cracks of our calendars. They’re also inherently hard to measure. Consequently it’s easy for the amount of time we spend working, and how seriously we take our jobs, to become proxies for productivity.

Performing busyness is a good way to avoid getting more work piled on your plate, and looking indispensable. It’s a kind of corporate protective covering, a way of fitting in. When everyone does it, living a more balanced life makes you look like a slacker, and feel like you’re not doing your bit.

There’s also a self-defeating cycle that keeps up overworking. You can sustain a push for a few weeks, but eventually chronic fatigue sets in, and productivity drops. To keep up, though, you need to put in even more hours, which might help a little in the short run but then leaves you more tired, and even less productive. Which we try to overcome by working even more.

Finally, Silicon Valley and the finance world has bequeathed us with a vision of success that’s a sprint rather than a marathon, a race against your own obsolescence. In an earlier era, success came by working your way up the ladder, waiting your turn, and building your career; now, it’s a rocket ship driven by the energy generated by the fast decay of your technical skills or business model.

Cass Business School professor Laura Empson had an additional explanation: insecurity.

The core of Empson’s insight is that, as she puts it on her Web site,

belonging to an elite organization can help counteract the sense of insecurity felt by many high-performing individuals, and how social control mechanisms within the firms’ strong cultures can provide a degree of ‘comfort’. However, there is a dark side to this:… comforting social control can lapse into cult-like conformity, and… exacerbate existing tendencies to overwork.

As she explains in Harvard Business Review,

A professional’s insecurity is rooted in the inherent intangibility of knowledge work. How do you convince your client that you know something worthwhile and justify the high fees you charge? The insecurity caused by this intangibility is exacerbated by the rigorous “up or out” promotion system perpetuated by elite professional organizations, which turns your colleagues into your competitors….

[E]lite professional organizations deliberately set out to identify and recruit “insecure overachievers” — some leading professional organizations explicitly use this terminology, though not in public. Insecure overachievers are exceptionally capable and fiercely ambitious, yet driven by a profound sense of their own inadequacy….

Paradoxically, the professionals I studied still believe that they have autonomy and that they are overworking by choice. They do not blame their organizations, which after all have invested in work-life balance initiatives and wellness programs. Instead, they blame themselves for being inadequate.

It’s good to see someone else providing what seems a very plausible explanation for overwork.

If you’re not into reading, Empson also has a BBC1 radio show about insecure overachievers.

A quick update, and more news soon

DSCF2985

I realize I’ve posted very little in the last few weeks (though I’ve posted lots of labrador pictures), because I’ve been doing a lot on the next book. I’ll have some good news about the project that I can share before too long; in the meantime, I can say that the writing continues, and indeed I’ve discovered a whole crop of companies in Japan and Korea that are practicing 4-day or 4.5-day weeks, which nicely expands my project without making it totally unmanageable. (I’ll be off to Japan, and I hope Korea, in the new year to study these companies a little more closely.)

The more I get into it, the clearer it become sot me that this really is a global movement that just needs to be made aware of itself to really catch fire. We talk about the 4-day week as some kind of great aspirational goal, or as some semi-utopian thing, when in fact companies all over the world are doing it right now, and indeed making shorter hours a cornerstone of their cultures and success.

Chinese Academy of Social Sciences proposes a 4-day, 36-hour workweek

According to a story in the China Daily, “the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences proposed revising the national work schedule in 2030 to nine hours a day and four days a week.”

For a long time I thought that the 4-day week was mainly a Western, and particularly European, phenomenon, but clearly there’s more to it than that. I recently wrote about Japanese company Zozo and its 30-hour week, and there are a number of other Japanese companies that offer 10-hour, 4-day weeks for employees.

And of course, some of the most overworked countries in the world are in Asia, and they recognize that the costs are now outweighing the benefits. China shifted to a 5-day workweek in the 1990s, South Korea recently passed legislation limiting the workweek to 52 hours (with very mixed results), and the Japanese have struggled for years with this. So it makes sense that these experiments would be happening in Asian countries, too.

According to the Shenzhen Daily, the CASS has a pretty detailed timeline for how this would work:

China should experiment with a four-day (36 hours) workweek in large and medium-sized State-owned enterprises in East China from 2020 to 2025, the newly released report said.

From 2025 onwards, a four-day (36 hours) workweek can be implemented in certain industries in the central and eastern regions.

And from 2030 onwards, Chinese people should be able to take three days of rest for every four working days.

However, the China Daily article also notes that the comments on social media haven’t all been positive; in fact, the general reaction has been skeptical. Why is that?

The answer lies in their anxieties about an uncertain future. As capital gets increasingly more accumulated, ordinary workers, blue-collar and white-collar alike, face the sad and cold fact that unemployment is likely to rise. Many people face the risk of losing their jobs to artificial intelligence and automation.

That’s why many people are rather worried about their futures.

To solve this, the key lies in promoting the idea of “rest”. The right to rest and the right to labor must be protected together so that people can be more certain about their future.

Thinking about work and rest together. Now that’s an idea I can get behind.

“We converted 20% less work into 50% more weekend:” Australian company Icelab’s four-day workweek

There’s a classic (classic among grad students, anyway) Matt Groening cartoon about graduate school:

At the risk of being the person who reads another book in order to avoid finishing, I want to flag yet another company that’s been doing four-day weeks for years: Australian Web and interface design company Icelab.

Last year, Icelab founder (and ex-philosophy graduate student!) Michael Honey wrote a piece explaining how they decided to move to four-day weeks. As he tells the story, the move to shorter hours happened gradually after the company’s founding in 2006:

We started the company [Icelab], two of us in a room, working five eight-hour days, and late if we had to: the same hours we were used to at the advertising agency we’d just left, scrounging for work, taking what we could get.

Little by little we got better at what we did, and after two or three years we’d improved our skills and our processes, grown to five people, and we were in a position to do something with that productivity. So we started taking Fridays off.

At first, they worked 10-hour days, Monday through Thursday, but

After six months or so we said stuff it: let’s just do four normal eight-hour days. Thirty-two hours, not forty. And it worked. 

We seemed to get the same amount done as we did before, only now our partners liked us better and we got to see the daylight. We turned some of that productivity into time. We converted 20% less work into 50% more weekend.

According to a 2011 newspaper article, the company moved to four-day weeks in 2008, making them one of the longest-running four-day week companies I’ve found so far.

In an interview with acidlabs founder Steven Collins, he adds to the story:

After having worked for three or four years as regular five-day a week sort of company, not having to do any overnighters, which was appreciated by myself, we made a decision to go to a four day week… We realised that we weren’t getting a lot of extra value out of the couple of hours extra we were theoretically working. So we just stopped doing it, we just decided we’ll work four normal days.

This is similiar to what I heard in a number of interviews, including the ones I did in Europe earlier this month: Fridays are already kind of a lost day, so why not figure out how to eliminate them entirely?

Of course, I far prefer to hear about these companies before I finish the book, rather than after, especially if they’ve been doing it successfully for years. There’s been a quite revolution in work happening for years now, playing out in companies around the world, and it’s time for them to be introduced to a wider audience. And their success raises a question for companies that are struggling to improve engagement, work-life balance, and retain better workers; why aren’t you doing this, too?

Adam Smith disliked overwork

Adam Smith's tomb
Adam Smith’s tomb, Edinburgh

The report from The Mix about its four-day week had a quote from Adam Smith that “the man who works so moderately as to be able to work constantly not only preserves his health the longest, but, in the course of the year, executes the greatest quantity of work.”

Naturally, I had to track the quote down, and it’s from The Wealth of Nations, in the chapter “On the Wages of Labour.” I’ve added some paragraph breaks to make it a bit easier to read, but here’s the relevant section:

The liberal reward of labour, as it encourages the propagation, so it increases the industry of the common people. The wages of labour are the encouragement of industry, which, like every other human quality, improves in proportion to the encouragement it receives. A plentiful subsistence increases the bodily strength of the labourer, and the comfortable hope of bettering his condition, and of ending his days perhaps in ease and plenty, animates him to exert that strength to the utmost. Where wages are high, accordingly, we shall always find the workmen more active, diligent, and expeditious than where they are low: in England, for example, than in Scotland; in the neighbourhood of great towns than in remote country places. Some workmen, indeed, when they can earn in four days what will maintain them through the week, will be idle the other three.

This, however, is by no means the case with the greater part. Workmen, on the contrary, when they are liberally paid by the piece, are very apt to overwork themselves, and to ruin their health and constitution in a few years. A carpenter in London, and in some other places, is not supposed to last in his utmost vigour above eight years. Something of the same kind happens in many other trades, in which the workmen are paid by the piece, as they generally are in manufactures, and even in country labour, wherever wages are higher than ordinary. Almost every class of artificers is subject to some peculiar infirmity occasioned by excessive application to their peculiar species of work. Ramuzzini, an eminent Italian physician, has written a particular book concerning such diseases.

We do not reckon our soldiers the most industrious set of people among us. Yet when soldiers have been employed in some particular sorts of work, and liberally paid by the piece, their officers have frequently been obliged to stipulate with the undertaker, that they should not be allowed to earn above a certain sum every day, according to the rate at which they were paid. Till this stipulation was made, mutual emulation and the desire of greater gain frequently prompted them to overwork themselves, and to hurt their health by excessive labour.

Excessive application during four days of the week is frequently the real cause of the idleness of the other three, so much and so loudly complained of. Great labour, either of mind or body, continued for several days together, is in most men naturally followed by a great desire of relaxation, which, if not restrained by force or by some strong necessity, is almost irresistible. It is the call of nature, which requires to be relieved by some indulgence, sometimes of ease only, but sometimes, too, of dissipation and diversion. If it is not complied with, the consequences are often dangerous, and sometimes fatal, and such as almost always, sooner or later, brings on the peculiar infirmity of the trade.

If masters would always listen to the dictates of reason and humanity, they have frequently occasion rather to moderate than to animate the application of many of their workmen. It will be found, I believe, in every sort of trade, that the man who works so moderately as to be able to work constantly not only preserves his health the longest, but, in the course of the year, executes the greatest quantity of work.

Great!

The Mix’s report on four-day weeks

Scenes from London

One of the places I visited in London during my recent recent trip was The Mix, a research consultancy founded in 2012. Almost exactly a year ago, they transitioned to a four-day workweek, and have had a great experience with it.

To mark the anniversary, they released a report (coauthored with Strategy of Mind) about their four-day week, which you can download here.

It’s quite good, and I say that as someone who knows a LOT about this subject now (thanks entirely to lots of very smart and dedicated people sharing their stories with me).

The Labour Party talks about four-day weeks

More from London
The City, from the 6th floor of Shoreditch House

While I was in England, interviewing companies about how they implement and manage their four-day weeks, the UK’s Labour Party started talking about them too:

The Labour Party says it will look at the option of introducing a four-day working week if it gets into government.

Shadow chancellor John McDonnell said the party would consider reducing the working week.

Speaking on BBC One’s Sunday Politics, he said: “We work the longest hours in Europe yet we’re less productive.

“The Germans and French produce in four days what we produce in five and yet we work the longest hours.

“We’ll look at the working week because I think people are working too long.”

The fact that this is starting to attract attention among serious political figures is, I think, a very hopeful development.

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